On Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced his version of the new Pentagon budget. Looked at one way, his suggested changes were significant, even startling given how deeply the giant armament companies have embedded themselves and their new generations of weaponry in the American landscape (and so in Congress). Gates stated that the F-22 Raptor program (at $350 million a plane) and the C-17 cargo plane program were to end; that the Army's $200 billion techno-boondoggle, its Future Combat Systems, would be radically scaled back, losing all eight of its vehicles; that the Navy would some distant day end up with one less aircraft carrier battle group and lose as well its futuristic stealth destroyers; that money going into missile defense would be shrunk, and so on. This is no small thing and, given the way the arms industry scatters weapons production over as many states as possible, some of these cuts may not make it through congressional review.
Seen one way, it's certainly the first significant recognition from the Pentagon that the United States, the former "sole superpower" and planetary sheriff, has actually entered a universe of limits, even when it comes to the previous sacrosanct and ever soaring military budget. Think of it as a signal directly from Washington—if you want one—that the glory days are on the wane.
On the other hand, if you take the budget as a whole, the cuts, staggering as they might seem inside the capital's famed Beltway—and screams of bloody murder rose from Congress within nanoseconds of the Gates announcement—are rather modest. After all, once Gates had finished offering his own replacement shopping list, including more Special Forces troops, more unmanned aerial vehicles, more personnel for the military, and so on, the Pentagon's base budget had actually risen by 4% to $534 billion (not including war-fighting funds), $21 billion more than last year's already staggering version of the same.
Enter a world in which the glass that's half-full, as historian and TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus puts it, is also distinctly half empty. Which do you choose? It depends not just on what you care to see, but on what comes next, on what the future turns out to have to offer. Take, for instance, George Bush's Global War on Terror—or rather, let Chernus take you on a tour of its shifting linguistic and political landscape, and consider which aspect of that glass you'd care to see. Tom
Requiem for the War on Terror
Goodbye GWOT, Hello OCOs
By Ira Chernus
This is the way the Global War on Terror (also known, in Bush-era jargon, as GWOT) ends, not with a bang, not with parades and speeches, but with an obscure memo, a few news reports, vague denials, and a seemingly off-handed comment (or was it a carefully calculated declaration?) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The administration has stopped using the phrase ["war on terror"] and I think that speaks for itself. Obviously."
This is often the way presidents and their administrations operate when it comes to national security and foreign policy—not with bold, clear statements but through leaks, trial balloons, small gestures, and innuendo.
In this case, though, are we seeing the cleverly orchestrated plan of a shrewd administration, every move plotted with astonishing cunning? Or are the operators actually a bunch of newbies bumbling along from day to day, as a literal reading of press reports on the end of GWOT might suggest? Unless some historian finds a "smoking gun" document in the archives years from now, we may never know for sure.
If the motives remain obscure, some effects of this major shift in language are already evident, though whether the result is a glass half empty or half full may lie in the eye of the beholder. In some cases, the new administration's policies still look amazingly like those of the Global War on Terror, sans the name—most notably in Afghanistan, where President Obama is pursuing many of the same old goals with renewed force, and in Pakistan, where he is steadily widening Bush's war. Sounding a lot like Bush, in fact, Obama played the 9/11 card repeatedly in his announcement justifying his program of stepped up action in the AfPak theater of operations.
There, as Pepe Escobar of Asia Times says, "for all practical purposes, strategically reviewed or not, GWOT goes on, with no end in sight." There, Obama's "new" policies seem to justify Jon Stewart's clever label for the recent language changes: "Redefinition Accomplished."
Yet there is good news, too. Just a few years ago, Dick Cheney told America's young people that the "war on terror" would be a generations-long struggle and the defining fact of the rest of their lives. A perpetual war for peace (and the endless terrors it unleashed) was then to be the single purpose to which the United States would bend all its strength and will for decades to come. Abandoning such terrible language really does make a difference.
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama is not staking his claim to historical importance on being a "war president." Both his personal history and his laser-like focus on HEE (health, energy, education) suggest that his true passion is his domestic agenda. He may see national security as filled with distractions or potential stumbling blocks rather than as a field of glory.
Without a "war" to wage, this administration cannot so easily claim, as its predecessor did, extraordinary powers for the president. It won't be able to use the argument "we're at war" to justify poking holes in the Constitution, or to get a mindless rubber-stamp for its national security policies from Congress and the public. That will open up at least a bit more space for debate about those policies.
Spending unconscionable sums of public money on military action may, in the long run, prove far harder, too. Americans will pony up endlessly when we are at war. They are less likely to shell out so quickly for the proposed successor phrase to the Global War on Terror: "Overseas Contingency Operations." As Escobar notes, this "delightfully Orwellian" term is known to the bureaucrats by its equally Orwellian acronym, OCO.
The Bad News of Empire
The bad news is that nobody can say exactly what an OCO is. A war requires at least a convincing illusion of threat to the nation. An OCO, on the other hand, can be just about anything. It doesn't have to be over any literal seas; it merely has to aim at a target outside U.S. borders (even as close as Mexico). It doesn't have to involve shoot-'em-up military action, only an action—kidnapping, computer hacking, whatever—carried out by U.S. government operatives.
An OCO is, in the end, any U.S. government response to some "contingency" outside our borders. Philosophers use the word "contingent" to mean something that could happen but doesn't have to happen—that is, something that isn't necessary. In that case, a wag might say, we're really talking about "Overseas Unnecessary Operations." But for the "serious" people who make U.S. national security policy, a contingency is undoubtedly any new event that isn't fully predictable. In other words, just about anything that occurs beyond our borders can be deemed a contingency and so require an OCO.
Of course, by that definition the U.S. government has been carrying out dozens of OCOs every day for decades. As early as 1937, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said publicly: "There can be no serious hostilities anywhere in the world which will not one way or another affect interests or rights or obligations of this country." Since the late 1940s, U.S. policymakers have assumed that there were no serious "contingencies" of any kind, anywhere on the planet, that did not affect this country's interests. In public, they substitute polite euphemisms for the pursuit of those interests like "global responsibilities" or "leader of the free world."
Their critics call it by its true name: Empire. Empires can go for many years without fighting a war. But they have to carry out OCOs all the time.
That's why the administration's new military budget is geared to switching priorities, spending less on preparations for future conventional warfare against great power enemies who have yet to emerge and more on counterterrorism—"to deter aggression, project power when necessary, and protect our interests and allies around the globe," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently put it. Though proposed military cuts like the F-22 Raptor are getting most of the attention this week, a Pentagon spokesman went out of his way to stress that Gates is "going to be adding a lot of things to capabilities that we need too."
The new Pentagon budget rollout is part of a larger public relations campaign to promote a simple idea: We're no longer at war, but there's still plenty of fighting to do. There will still be the requisite number of OCOs with substantial costs to bear, not only in dollars but in blood and misery.